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Much is legitimately contested in this crazy, crazy world, but there is only one honest response to the news that the Obama administration will open talks with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, suspended since early 1961: it is just about freaking time.
Immediately after the Revolution of January 1, 1959—which overthrow the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista—The Nation warned of the deleterious consequences for Cuba and for the US should the government of the latter deal with the former only on the basis of antagonism and hostility. The great foreign correspondent Carleton Beals—who made international headlines in the late 1920s after traveling into the jungles of Nicaragua to interview the elusive guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino—wrote in “Revolution Without Generals,” in the Nation of January 17, 1959: “Much of the course of events in the near future will depend upon the official American attitude toward Castro. Will our government be as lavishly helpful with him as it was with Batista?”
It wasn’t to be. By the summer of 1960, Beals was writing in a special “Report from Havana”:
We have missed the boat badly. If the Eisenhower Government succeeds in overthrowing Castro (it would cost much bloodshed), in destroying the agrarian reform and the free spirit of the Cuban people and in imposing another puppet dictator labeled as “democratic,” the action will win no prestige for the United States. If Castro survives our dollar diplomacy and our fear diplomacy, our loss in prestige will be equally great.
By that point, Eisenhower had already directed the CIA to come up with plans for an invasion of Cuba, which were eventually passed off—with disastrous consequences, predicted by Beals—to his successor, John F. Kennedy. Just after the election that November, Beals wrote in “Cuba’s Invasion Jitters” (November 12, 1960) that Cubans were extremely nervous at the prospect that the US would launch an invasion to overthrow Castro, probably using a false-flag attack on the naval base at Guantanamo as a “pretext.” Though that’s not how things eventually played out—the United States never even bothered to cite a proximate cause for the Bay of Pigs invasion—Beals’s warnings now read as disturbingly, tragically prophetic:
Even if an attack occurred, the Cubans may be wrong in believing that immediate armed intervention would follow. A state of quasi-belligerency between the two countries would permit the Untied States to blockade the island and starve the Cuban people into submission. There are indications that a clique in Washington, chiefly military, wishes to set up such a blockade and seize all shipments from iron curtain countries. Such a course could bring about armed clashes with the Soviets, who might attempt to protect their shipping with warships and submarines.
Besides threatening world conflict, our Cuban policy has broken the New World front. Each hour that our punitive blows hit Cuba, we lose support from the people of Latin America…. If we really believe in land reform for Latin America, and intend to help pick up the tab for it, then why not pick up the tab for Cuba and guarantee her agrarian bonds? This gesture would cost us little more than what we should have paid for the use of the Guantanamo Naval Base all these six decades. It would certainly be cheaper and more sensible than bringing a possible world war close to our shores, breaking the hearts of the Cuban people, and perhaps fomenting a dozen Cuban revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. The whole deal would cost us less than the development of one of our new-fangled moon-rockets.
But it was in the following week’s issue that The Nation really staked its claim to fame on the story of Cuban-American relations. In an editorial titled “Are We Training Cuban Guerillas?”—ironically, we can see now, published the page after a lead editorial on “Mr. Kennedy’s Opportunity”—The Nation cited intelligence gleaned from Dr. Ronald Hilton of Stanford University, who on a trip to Guatemala learned that the US was training counter-revolutionary Cuban guerillas in a secret base in that country:
If Washington is ignorant of the existence of the base, or, knowing that it exists, is nevertheless innocent of any involvement in it, then surely the appropriate authorities will want to scotch all invidious rumors and issue a full statement of the real facts. On the other hand, if the reports heard by Dr. Hilton are true, then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the Administration to abandon this dangerous and hair-brained project.
Again, it was not to be. The Nation’s warning was ignored, and a more deeply reported account of the the invasion preparations, to be published in The New Republic, was suppressed at the request of that magazine’s Reader-in-Chief. The Nation tried again in January with an editorial titled “Nothing to Fear?”
The notion that this country is planning an actual armed invasion of Cuba is, by common assumption, “preposterous.” Why, then, does Castro insist that an invasion is imminent? Why does he keep the Cubans on a round-the-clock alert?… Why, given all these signs and omens, is Castro so nervous? Doesn’t this silly man know that the sugar-cane harvest needs attention? Aren’t there some psychiatrists in Havana who might calm his volatile militia men and militia ladies? Who are they afraid of, “spooks” or what?
When the invasion finally materialized in April of 1961, it wasn’t, of course, only The Nation who recognzied it for the disaster it was—not just a tactical or even a strategic disaster, but a disaster, as Beals had written the previous summer, for what remained of American prestige. Most of the media concentrated on Kennedy’s unwillingness to militarily intervene to support the invasion, but even before that decision had been made, editor Carey McWilliams asked Ronald Hilton, who had initially provided the information about the invasion preparations the previous fall, to reflect on the implications of the conspiracy itself (“The Cuba Trap,” April 29, 1961):
A few general considerations may be derived.… The first is that the United States will almost certainly emerge from the current situation with a tarnished reputation. Our equivocations have unquestionably reduced our prestige throughout the world. For this we must thank the power elite in New York and Washington which really runs the affairs of this country.
That power elite is responsible for the embargo on Cuba, in effect to various degrees since October of 1960. The Nation has repeatedly called for its end—most recently this past October, in a feature article by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. This magazine’s archives are endlessly fascinating, for their historical interest, and for their enabling of “we-told-you-so” posts like this one. But they have another purpose as well. When the time comes to reconsider the position of the power elite in this country, it might be wise to look back at an article that ran in the Nation of November 30, 1957. It was titled “What Cuba’s Rebels Want,” and the author was Fidel Castro:
The future of the country and the solution of its problems cannot continue to depend on the selfish desires of a dozen financiers, on the cold profit-and-loss calculations of a few magnates in air-conditioned offices. The country cannot continue to beg, on bended knee, for miracles from a few “golden calves.” Cuba’s problems will only be solved if we Cubans dedicate ourselves to fight for their solution with the same energy, integrity and patriotism our liberators invested in the country’s foundation. They will not be solved by politicians who jabber unceasingly of “absolute freedom of enterprise,” the sacred “law of supply and demand” and “guarantees of investment capital”….
We have sufficient stones and more than enough hands to create a decent residence for every family in Cuba. But if we continue to wait for miracles from the golden calves, a thousand years will pass and nothing will change.
A lot of progress has not happened in Cuba since Castro wrote those words. A lot of progress has not happened in the United States, too. But for the first time in over a half-century, tomorrow really is a new day.
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As the first national anti-lynching conference met in New York City in May of 1919, The Nation described that particular brutality as the American iteration of “the habit of torture,” which had somehow survived beyond “the primitive years of mankind.”
“As a rule,” the historian Edward Raymond Turner wrote, recounting several recent lynchings, “the story of these things is hushed up. If the disgrace is felt at all, it is stifled, and the infamy is soon forgotten. Occasionally this is not possible, and then the event may be taken…to point a moral and bring repentance and atonement to our civilization.”
Whatever the motive of torture, “nothing can explain it away, as nothing can remove the shame and disgrace of it,” Turner concluded.
Woe to those who permit it in their midst! Not only shall their fair name be gone, but they themselves are in danger; they must expect to see this hideous thing, lurking darkly in society, plague them in the administration of their prisons and asylums, show itself in the ordinary life of the base and uncouth whenever they get power, and sometimes, when the madness of men becomes the lust and unreason of the mob, burst forth with all the frightfulness it had long ago in ages of the past.
Surely, it would shock and awe the wise and prophetic Edward Raymond Turner, risen from history, to discover that ostensibly respected—if not quite self-respecting—Americans in 2014 are still defending the morality of torture. And yet here we are. “I’d do it again in a minute,” saith the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.
But almost as unseemly is the media’s portrayal of Dick Cheney as outside the mainstream of American political opinion: that he is, but it wasn’t always so. As Digby writes at Salon, “It must be acknowledged that members of the media were among the first to call for torture…. Even though the excuses these days are all about how the chaos of the early days and the pain of the attacks led the government to ‘make mistakes,’ that’s really no excuse.”
It never was one. From the very beginning, immediately after September 11, The Nation warned of the inalterable consequences of a retreat from the very ideals of “civilization” in whose name the “war on terror” itself was ostensibly being waged. Responding to the infamous Jonathan Alter column in Newsweek (November 5, 2001), titled “Time to Think About Torture,” The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn seethed:
What’s striking about Alter’s commentary and others in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.
“Start torturing,” Cockburn wrote, “and it’s easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it.”
It was the same argument that had been offered in The Nation by Edward Raymond Turner, who might have been forgiven for resting easily in his grave under the assumption it would not need to be made, at the opening of the following century, yet again.
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The Nation of March 31, 2003, would have reached readers during the first week of the American invasion of Iraq, but the cover story wasn’t about that war. Rather, “In Torture We Trust,” by Eyal Press, considered “the absence of debate” over the use of torture against captured insurgents in the ongoing Afghan war. Press noted that absence “may simply reflect a preoccupation with Iraq, but it may also signal that in these jittery times, many people see torture as justified.” Among those in the media whom he then quoted was Judge Richard Posner, arguing in The New Republic—remember that rag?—that “if the stakes are high enough, torture is permissible. No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.” In their recent sally over at Al Jazeera America, Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin pinpoint this tone of swaggering bellicosity as one of the cardinal sins of the publication: “Almost as if the very thought of peace, or just caution, was a vice. With each engagement, it was the American soul, not other people’s bodies, that was at stake.” The old New Republic has been raked over the coals for its racism and its gutless imperialism, but its role as early advocate for the use of torture ought not to be missed.
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It will surprise nobody that the deepest, most poignant, most haunting writing about torture to appear in the pages of The Nation—since Edward Raymond Turner, of course—was produced from the now thunderously silent pen of the late Jonathan Schell. In “Torture and Truth” (June 15, 2009), Schell took aim at President Obama’s expressed desire to focus on “getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Setting to one side the harm to the prisoner, the utter immorality of the practice and its counter-productivity, Schell wrote:
The wound goes deeper. Even as the torturer shatters the world of his victim, he assaults the foundation of his own world, although he does not know it. Indeed, his blindness is a consequence of the torture, even a condition for it. The torturer and his victim are close to each other. There is physical contact. Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another. In the moral and affective vacuum that has been generated, sympathy, empathy, pity understanding—every form of fellow-feeling—have been reduced to absolute zero…The power of the state that tortures may be increasingly fictional, but the degradation of its civilization is real.
Those symptoms are brought on, of course, not just by the torture but by society’s reaction to it. The interrogator faces his choice when the order to torture comes down from on high. The people face their choice when reports of what he did are made public, as is happening. If the people choose denial, the pathology of torture tends to reproduce itself in the society at large. The result is a kind of cognitive dislocation, which can be more or less severe. Fundamental human capacities begin to atrophy or are impaired. Certainly, abuse of human beings and abuse of words go hand in hand. The words that name the deed fog over, or are driven from the language. Refusal to face the fact of torture has cost us the very word “torture,” now widely referred to, as if in obedience to some general edict, as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh methods.” Torture’s writ thus runs in the editorial rooms of newspapers.
Thus Dick Cheney’s recent, um, tortuous efforts to coherently define torture and explain why what the United States did to its prisoners was not described by it. But beyond psychology and linguistics, Schell indicated, the scars of torture ran even deeper than even most critics of the practice have ever been willing to admit:
At an even deeper level, the bonds that connect the very tenses of human life—past, present and future—may start to come unglued. It is in this context that our new president’s determination to get things right in the future by ignoring what went wrong in the past is troubling. Here, the past per se is at risk of being demeaned by a sort of guilt by association with torture. The other two tenses, though seemingly preferred, do not escape unharmed. The danger is most obvious in the legal system, where it is precisely the past—the precedent of law plus the factual record of the case—that determines the future to be taken. Someone brought into court for dealing drugs is not invited to say to the judge, “Let’s not look at the past; let’s concentrate on getting the future right.” But more than the legal system is at stake. For whatever else civilization may be, it is surely intercourse between past, present and future. Without the past to guide it, judgment about the future is reduced to clueless conjecture, and without informed judgment about the future, we wander lost in the present.
Better to look the torture in the face and having looked, to remember, and having remembered, to respond, and having responded, to call those responsible to account so that we never do this again.
The purpose of the anti-lynching conference in the spring of 1919 was to encourage Congress to pass legislation making lynching a felony, prosecutable by the federal government. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, supported even by Warren Gamaliel Harding, would have also made it a crime for local officials not to protect individuals in their jurisdiction or not to prosecute lynchings once they had occurred. In 2005, the House of Representatives formally apologized for never having passed anti-lynching legislation “when action was most needed.”
Action is needed now. Lynching is torture, and torture is lynching. Officials who authorized torture—who sent the United States back to “the primitive years of mankind”—must be prosecuted. Cops who kill young black men today at a faster rate than they were lynched during Jim Crow must be prosecuted. “The haunting symmetry of a death every three or four days links us to an uglier time that many would prefer not to think about,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in The Guardian back in August, “but which reminds us that the devaluation of black life in America is as old as the nation itself and has yet to be confronted.” Noah Berlatsky, in his Pacific Standard review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, writes: “American decency has always been more a theory than a practice and America’s most important value—the value that turned this country from a marginal economic unknown to a world-straddling imperial power—was torture.” These things must not be hushed up. Lynching is torture, and torture is lynching. Woe to those who permit either in their midst!
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The Nation's December 26, 2005, issue was entirely devoted to what the cover called "The Torture Complex."
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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
We here at Back Issues nearly regurgitated our coffee last Saturday morning at the inflammatory news, buried deep inside The New York Times, that only a handful of Americans could name which president, John Tyler or Rutherford B. Hayes, served in office before the eradication of slavery. The amnesia was broader than that: while many could identify those leaders whose visages grace the coin of the realm, the Times reported that Tyler’s reign (1841–45) falls within an era in which popular knowledge of presidents has now “plunged to near zero,” while Hayes’s (1877–81) wallows in “another run of obscurity.”
It is not often that we are aggravated by an unfortunate state of affairs reported in the news that we can directly and individually do something to improve. Everyone can make a difference, and so on, but that tends to require collective action, various layers of mediation, time. So it was exhilarating to find the perturbations of the weekend replaced, come Monday, by a profound sense of empowerment and responsibility. With access to The Nation’s online digital archives—available for free to all subscribers—we could go back into the historical record and recover an immediate sense of what it was like to read about the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in real time. (Alas, John Tyler, who died in 1862, three years before The Nation was founded, is beyond our ken.) Who was Rutherford B. Hayes? What was going on during his presidency? What, if anything, is worth remembering from that time?
Summarizing the findings, first published in the journal Science, the Times’s Benedict Carey, wrote, “The less a president is ‘used’—seen, heard about, written about, referred to—the less accessible to memory the name becomes.” Join us for a plunge into The Nation’s archives to see how Rutherford B. Hayes might be used.
Hayes, it turns out, is very useful indeed: in a certain sense, Americans today are a lot more familiar with his presidency than they think they are.
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Hayes, a Civil War veteran, was a second-term governor of Ohio when he was nominated for president on the seventh ballot at the Republican Party’s national convention, held in Cincinnati, Hayes’s hometown, in the summer of 1876. The Nation, traditionally Republican but highly disapproving of Ulysses S. Grant’s egregiously corrupt administration, had one over-arching concern in national politics at the time: civil-service reform. E.L. Godkin, the magazine’s editor, thought that a professionalized, nonpolitical administration of the growing federal bureaucracy was a prerequisite for modern democracy and a free and healthy exchange of goods. The Nation worried that Hayes had not yet had to answer to this crucial test.
In a July 20, 1876, editorial, “Things for Mr. Hayes’s Consideration,” The Nation described the candidate as “a man by no means conspicuous in public affairs.” Partisans of civil-service reform, the editorial said, “are willing to support Mr. Hayes as the best man for the place, but, while supporting him, they are not going to shut their eyes to the obvious difficulties and danger of his candidateship, or to fail to keep him in mind of them.” They would keep the pressure on Hayes, should he be elected president, while not allowing their wishes to get their best of their expectations. “His courage and honesty must not be subjected to severer tests when he enters the White House than are absolutely necessary,” the editorial continued, “nor must the public be induced to expect too much from any one man.” The Nation noted that “the corrupt oligarchy who have had charge of the party under General Grant think they have satisfied the public’s demands by nominating Mr. Hayes…. If the Republican candidate is to be elected, he must in some way escape from even the appearance of alliance with ‘the machine.’”
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In its article, the Times framed our lack of cultural knowledge about Rutherford B. Hayes as some kind of forgetting, but the fact is that few of us ever had any such knowledge to lose. All any of us likely ever knew is that Hayes was involved in the disputed presidential election of 1876 (forerunner to the disputed election of 2000), which had something to do with the end of Reconstruction.
The results in three states were in doubt, with partisans of both the Republican Hayes and the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden of New York, blatantly committing electoral fraud—this was a time when such a thing actually existed—and accusing the other side of the same. The uncertainty stretched deep into the winter. In a December 14, 1876, editorial, “The Political Situation,” The Nation sounded exasperated:
What the public is now most interested in is the election of somebody in a manner that will command general confidence. A technical victory would therefore do the Democrats no good…. No man can afford to take the Presidency on any quirk or quibble, or in virtue of any merely technical rule.
Neither Hayes nor, almost 125 years later, George W. Bush took the hint, however, and in January of 1877 a bipartisan commission of fifteen eminences grises, including five Supreme Court justices, was formed to settle the dispute. By a party-line vote of eight to seven, the committee threw the election to Hayes, thus, in The Nation’s eyes, perhaps sullying the respectability of the Court for a long time to come. In an editorial titled “The Provision for Future Presidential Disputes,” The Nation wrote:
Now that the Presidential controversy is over, it is none too soon to think of the means to be adopted to prevent any recurrence of the great danger through which we have just passed. The crisis has brought home to us in a most impressive way the fact that the Presidency has become so huge an affair that our own judicial resources will not enable us to dispute over it without great peril. It is, in other words, so great a prize that it would be almost impossible for us, probably before very long would become wholly impossible, to erect judging machinery strong and steadfast enough to try the title to it.... The settlement has been made with some damage to the Supreme Court—not grave damage, perhaps, but grave enough to make it clear that we could not safely resort to it again in a like case.
One possible reform, the magazine argued, would be to get rid of the Electoral College entirely. Its electors “serve no useful purpose, and they furnish, as we have recently seen, an occasion of much sin and sorrow.”
The Democrats refused to accept the electoral commission’s findings until Hayes agreed to end the federal military occupation of the South, which had helped prop up Reconstruction.
The Nation, to its shame, had by this point cast off its founding radicalism, and was greatly in favor of ending Reconstruction, which it thought had only led to corrupt governments in the South. In our April 5, 1877, issue, an editorial heralded “the dissolution of the last sham government at the South.” Then, alas, this:
We believe the proposition to be almost self-evident, indeed, that hereafter there is to be no South; none, that is, in a distinctively political sense. The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him. He will undoubtedly play a part, perhaps an important one, in the development of the national civilization. The philanthropist will have still a great deal to do both with him and for him, and the sociological student will find him, curiously placed as he is in contact and competition with other races, an unfailing source of interest; but as a “ward” of the nation he can no longer be singled out for especial guardianship or peculiar treatment in preference to Irish laborers or Swedish immigrants.
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By the fall of 1877, The Nation was beginning to serious doubt whether Hayes had enough spine to finish the job of civil-service reform. Earlier in the year Hayes had issued a vague executive order prohibiting government employees from taking part in political campaigns or conventions; it stirred up severe agitation in Congress and in the civil service itself. The Nation, in a November 1 editorial, cheered the president on and urged him to go even further still. Surveying the opponents of reform, the editors noted, “If the civil service is not to be reformed until they and such as they agree to it, and decide in what manner it shall be done, we shall certainly never see it reformed.” The Nation appreciated the president’s executive order, but worried about his ability to see it through to execution:
It is, of course, for the President to judge what are the practical difficulties in the way of executing the order, and to judge of his own ability to overcome them. There is one thing we can tell him, however, which is, that if his heart fails him before any difficulties which are as yet apparent, he is not the man for the place he fills or the times he lives in.
The most interesting appraisal of Hayes offered by The Nation during his presidency came in the August 15, 1878, issue. It could, with certain tweaks, be written today:
Let us observe…that thousands of those who supported Mr. Hayes most ardently, and most confidently promised “thorough, radical, and complete civil-service reform” in his name, have not only got over the shock of seeing the civil service used immediately on his accession to power to reward the set of bad characters at the South who were engaged in the electoral count, but point triumphantly to the fact that no participation in their frauds has been brought home to the President, as if this of itself proved the success of the Administration. Nor is this the only curious illustration of the readiness of public opinion, if not constantly restrained and enlightened, to accommodate itself to circumstances however mischievous and unwholesome. It is only two years since General Grant left the Presidency, after having given the country at least four years of unparalleled corruption and disregard of law. His faults as a civil ruler were so glaring that he had in 1876 neither a defender nor an apologist who dared to open his mouth. But at this moment “the guilty men” who figured most prominently in his regime have emerged from their hiding places….
All this is the not unnatural result of the extravagant, and indeed absurd, expectations about Mr. Hayes raised by his friends in 1876. The reaction of the disappointment is like the buoyancy of the hopefulness—a little grotesque in its manifestations. But it is more than ever necessary that the sober-minded and rational, by whose labors the Government is to be reformed—if reform be possible—should now neither give way to disappointment nor relax their exertions for a better result next time. Something has been gained by Mr. Hayes’s Administration, and in the two remaining years of it we have no doubt its influence will furnish support to those who seek to prevent our being presented with a choice of evils in 1880. It will be a great misfortune (in the present state of the country an incalculable one) if in the next Presidential canvass prominent reformers have no better work to do than running about showing what a rascal the other candidate is.
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In July of 1880, The Nation published an editorial on “General Garfield and the Civil Service,” which expressed the hope that the Republican nominee for the presidency—Hayes had, during his first campaign, pledged to serve only one term—would act more aggressively than the sitting president had. Hayes’s meekness, the editors complained, was inexplicable: “Nobody is competent to explain it but himself, and no explanation of it is likely to come from him,”
Perhaps not publicly, at least. Hayes’s diary entry of July 11, 1880, began: “In the Nation of the 8th there are criticisms of my course on the reform of the civil service. Agreeing generally with the Nation on this subject, I would like to make it clear to all such friends of the reform, that public opinion and Congress must be right on the question before we can have a thorough and complete reform.” Hayes went on to “frankly admit my own shortcomings,” adding parenthetically, “albeit they are not what the Nation supposes.”
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The Nation of March 3, 1881—the day before Hayes’s successor, James Garfield, was inaugurated—included an editorial titled “Mr. Hayes’s Administration,” which began: “By the time this reaches our readers Mr. Hayes will have retired to private life, after an Administration in some ways the most remarkable and trying in American history, because he is the only President who has held office under a disputed title.” Tragically, the editors reported, Hayes had not followed through on his promises of civil-service reform. “In fact,” the editorial lamented, “the battle was lost before a shot had been fired.” Hayes had done some good, The Nation admitted, adding that “it is one of the misfortunes of a President’s position, as it is of a clergyman’s, that when he sets up as a reformer he cannot afford a single lapse from virtue.” The United States was at a point of crisis, and Hayes, unfortunately, had failed:
We have reached a stage in the history of the country when, owing to the great strides made in population and industry, we are threatened with a distinct change in the form and spirit of the Government…. The movement can only be arrested by a President of indomitable energy and strength of will, who relies on and is supported by an aroused public opinion. We shall probably see more than one offer himself for the task and lose heart after putting his hand to the plough; but the right man will at last appear, and when he does people will be surprised by the ease with which he will do the work.
Americans today may not be able to distinguish Rutherford B. Hayes from John Tyler any more than future generations, as the Times article suggested, will know the first thing about Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. Even so, the Hayes era is not nearly as distant as we might think. The themes and rhythms of those times are still present in our own—buried, perhaps, but there. With Elvis Presley, we’ve forgotten to remember to forget.
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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
President Obama’s brief statement last week in support of net neutrality may or may not be enough to sway the Federal Communications Commission, expected to “hand down—spooky phrase—”new rules early in the New Year.“ The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” the president said, before “respectfully” asking the FCC “to preserve this technology’s promise for today and future generations to come.”
The Nation has been watching how new technologies interact with politics for almost 150 years. In September of 1866, the editors imagined a future thoroughly altered by the telegraph:
Where it is all going to end, and what kind of life the “merchant of the future” will lead, nobody knows, or pretends to know. From present appearances it would seem as if the commerce of the world would pass into the hands of a few great houses; that all the small dealers would be converted into clerks on salaries, and everything be done by a few vast combinations conceived by half-a-dozen heads, the details being worked out by subordinates, possessing only a limited responsibility, and, therefore, suffering little from wear and tear.
Sounds about right.
While not exactly at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century—the political implications of computers largely (though not entirely) evaded our attention—The Nation’s very first article about the Internet is a fascinating read. It is in some places hopelessly (and hilariously) dated, but in others quite timeless.
Published in our issue dated July 12, 1993, “The Whole World Is Talking” was written by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley. (The author note at the bottom of the piece said “they claim they are not computer weenies,” and then printed their e-mail addresses. Tim Ziegler, now editor of Austin Post, also contributed.)
It began with a set piece about a man named Wam Kat, who “files daily reports on life in Zagreb, Croatia.” The catch?
Kat’s bulletins, which he calls “Zagreb Diary,” don’t appear in Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information stream called the Internet.
So the guy had a blog.
Cooke and Lehrer’s article is full of delicious little items like that: barely more than twenty years old, it already feels like an artifact from another era, one as inaccessible to us now as the early days of the telegraph. Even so, as with the 1866 article, it is fun (and genuinely informative) to read now not because of its irrelevance to the current debate about information and society, but because of its surprising relevance.
“The Net is changing more than just the flow of information,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote. “It’s changing the way we relate to one another. The advent of global networking is fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls ‘virtual communities.’ Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world, existing between two linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends, romance or sex.”
There are some passages that, through no fault of the writers, come off a little goofy today:
While Internet experts deride the term “information superhighway” as an empty soundbite, the concept works as an analogy to understand how the Internet functions. Think of its as a massive road system, complete with freeways, feeders and local routes. At every intersection sits a computer, which has to be passed through to get to the next computer until you’ve reached your destination. Any computer on the Internet system can connect with any other computer through the road system. And if the route to your destination is closed, you will automatically take a detour to get there.
The difference between the Internet and the Interstate is that you can go to Finland as quickly as you can go down the block. Once there, you can remotely manipulate the computer to do anything your own can do. You can retrieve a file from it in the blink of an eye.
And the milkman came around three times a week.
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But Cooke and Lehrer also noted that potential that the Internet could be used for activism, organizing and political discussion unavailable in the mainstream press. “You’re not going to find anything to the left of the Democratic Party on TV or in newspapers,” they quoted one Harel Barzilai, a Cornell graduate student, saying. “And for those of us who have access to the Internet, it’s free to use it and post information. This is our chance to be heard.” The authors also quoted the writer Howard Rheingold saying that “the direct access to information the Internet provides is ‘inherently subversive.’”
The article then launches into a discussion about the privatization and profitization of the early Internet, which, in some ways, anticipates the one going on today. “Internet activists,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote, “want to make sure that this power stays with individuals.”
The primary threat was then, as it is today, plans to charge different prices for access to different content—precisely the kind of arrangement President Obama said last week must not be allowed. In 1993, Cooke and Lehrer saw that danger remarkably clearly:
By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over the Net’s electronic connections, the government would in effect allow megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future. They could determine how much anyone, from a single individual to a university, will have to pay for access. Some phone companies, for example, are already discussing charging users either by the amount of time they log on to the Internet or by the amount of data they send over it—despite the fact that their network operating costs are fixed no matter how many people us it or how much data flows through it. Changing the funding structure means the eventual extinction of the small, mom-and-pop computer networks, which could find themselves victims of predictable market forces. And that means that isolated users and cash-strapped colleges could be cut off from their virtual communities.
Some of the details of the problem, of course, have changed in ways we don’t have time or space to go into. But the principle at stake, and the threats to it, remain astonishingly identical to those Cooke and Lehrer wrote about in 1993:
In a worst-case scenario, Rheingold says, corporations would not only monitor what’s on the Internet, they would monitor you. If, as some predict, the information superhighway becomes primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping, the same computers that we use to lessen the burden of our daily errands could also be used by the corporations that provide those services to destroy our personal privacy. The Net could be used by marketing wizards—the same ones who flood us with annoying junk mail—to keep tabs on us all in Orwellian fashion, automatically recording our interests and habits.
Hackers have already developed a few defenses, which could be the seeds for preserving the right to free communication. Free software to encode all electronic transmissions is now widely available, with codes that even the fastest super-computers would have a tough-time cracking. This means that nobody but the person you send something to—whether an e-mail note or a piece of software—can read it.
The conclusion to the article, twenty-one years later, is fairly chilling:
Internet activists are also not happy with the Clinton Administration’s effort to impose a standard encoding scheme for data, whether e-mail or a movie, that only the government can break. “The machinery of oppression has weak spots,” Rheingold says, noting the spread of encryption techniques that even the National Security Agency may not be able to crack. “But the powers that be in the N.S.A. have convinced Clinton that they have to closet he doors before all the cows get out.”
Whether it’s the government or private corporations, what everyone wants is control of a new form of communication, one that currently cannot be controlled. Given the stakes and the power of the interests now seeking to shape and profit from this new technology, the end result may not be a happy one for the average citizen-user. “The key questions of access, pricing, censorship and redress of grievances will be answered in practice, in law, in executive order or legislative action, over the next five years,” Rheingold writes, “and will thus determine the political and economic structure of the Net for decades to come.”
But for the time being, the activities of people like Wam Kat seem to prove an old hacker adage: “All information wants to be free.”
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I e-mailed both Cooke and Lehrer, asking them to reread the 1993 article send me their reflections. Cooke wrote back first:
In the twenty-one years since this article was published, the Internet has become both more magical and more invasive than I expected. I have worked all that time as an Internet technologist for media companies, so I should probably not be as awed by the Internet as I am. I think the Internet ranks as one of the most important human-created things. Information does want to be free, as we continue to learn from people like Edward Snowden. Governments tremble before its power, and do whatever they can to control the cord, if they can’t cut it (see the Great Firewall of China for a very crazy example of this tendency.)
The uses we find for these technologies are beyond any one person’s comprehension, and were of course well beyond my imagination, when I pitched the idea for the article to Victor Navasky in a dark bar near the UC-Berkeley campus in the Spring of 1993. For most users, the Internet and smartphones are indistinguishable from magic. Count me among that number.
Dan Lehrer had this to say:
I remember that at the time, the “information superhighway” (and thank goodness that term has retired) was a hot topic in newspapers, but it was still a vague concept to most people. This story was really one of the first to explain to non-computer-friendly people what the Internet actually was and what it did.
A couple of things jumped out at me when rereading the article that Kevin, Tim and I wrote in the Pleistocene. The biggest is that we were even called upon to explain what the Internet was in the first place. We now take the Internet for granted—we expect to be able to scroll through epic cat fail videos, make free overseas video calls, and get free shipping. The Internet is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. That’s why it should be a public utility, right? But except for college students and early adopters who joined private virtual communities like Marin County’s the WELL (which stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) the promise of the Internet bordered on science fiction at that time. Indeed, in the article, we briefly mention that the Internet may become “primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping” but downplayed this aspect of the piece—it was kind of like a flying car.
The other major thing about the story is that the issues are the same now—completely, exactly the same—as they were back when Mosaic was the best browser around (and it was slow and crashed a lot). Marketing companies using browsing habits to invade privacy? Monopolistic megacorporations limiting access to competitors? Encryption as a way of protecting privacy? Check, check and check. The forms of communication that we use on the Internet have changed—newsgroups to Facebook—but the implications of what we do online and how we do it remain.
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The deconstruction, if you will, of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago this week perversely led to the erection of a similarly oppressive barrier, now to critical thinking rather than to the free movement of persons and goods, which has long been begging for deconstruction in turn: the trope, I mean—and it is no more than a trope—that the end of the Berlin Wall, a creature barely more than a quarter-century old, caused or vaguely heralded the end of socialism, a tradition of political thought and action stretching back roughly two centuries with antecedents at least a millennium or two older than that. This Nation editorial from late 1989, especially its concluding paragraph, is a bracing reminder of who exactly benefits from the proliferation of the idea that history ended the year before the editor of Back Issues was born.
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Read Next: This is what dollarocracy looks like.
House Republicans are poised to open the 114th Congress in January with a firmer hold on power than they have had since 1946. CNN projects that after all the ballots are counted, the GOP will end up with 246 seats, the same number it had after the first post–World War II elections, when President Harry Truman’s Democrats lost both Houses of Congress—which they had held since Franklin Roosevelt’s tidal-wave election thirteen years earlier.
If the results of the 2014 election recall those of 1946, it is also true that the lessons the left took away from the earlier drubbing can perhaps help us understand what happened yesterday—and where to go from here.
In an editorial published immediately after the November 5, 1946, results came in, The Nation’s editor Freda Kirchwey wrote that the loss of Congress would allow the left to recognize “how much was vitiated from the start…by the necessity of working through a machine so cynically concerned with power and perquisites as the Democratic Party…
We can trace as if on a military map the retreat of the machine Democrats from advance positions which had become politically exposed into comfortable rearguard posts, sheltered behind the euphemistic camouflage of “bi-partisanship.” The Roosevelt era died bit by bit. Now that it has been officially interred, despite the nominal survival of Mr. Truman, progressives are free to abandon both pretense and illusions and get to work laying the foundation for a new beginning.
Democrats would have to look beyond Roosevelt’s program, beyond the New Deal, if they wanted to regain national support.
Let us not fool ourselves in this hour of appraisal. The routed progressive forces in America are not equipped with a program or even prepared to unite on any program. They have emerged from the election reduced in strength, splintered and dispersed…. No common program; no organizational unity; no effective leadership. Defeated, they must start form scratch, for the fight they have just lost was only the start of a much tougher one ahead….
This was to be expected. Neither the reorientation of ideas demanded by the period we face nor the integration of forces on the left can be hastily improvised. Both will mean hard work by individuals and groups all over the country…In the pages of The Nation we shall analyze the practical as well as the theoretical problems that confront democratic Americans…. Attached to no man or party, we can comment without constraint upon issues and leaders, programs, parties, and strategies. Out of such discussions, in which we warmly invite our readers to join, we shall formulate as the weeks pass The Nation’s program for a new American progressive movement.
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It has been widely speculated and in some cases reported that President Obama will seek to compromise with the new Republican Congress on issues like free trade and tax reductions—deals previously blocked by Senate Democrats. Following the 1946 election, The Nation’s Washington correspondent Tris Coffin (later founder of The Washington Spectator) noted that a similar pivot was likely for President Truman:
During the last few days his friends have been trying to draw a new picture of Harry Truman. They are picturing a ruggedly independent man with no strings attached to him, a man who will act clearly and boldly for the good of the nation, let the chips call where they may. With or without a new Truman there will certainly be changes in downtown Washington. The exodus of men and women who worked under Roosevelt will be accelerated. None of them want to stay for the investigations by Republican-dominated Congressional committees and the lean budgets they must work with.
Coffin went on to relate a fascinating little episode, totally forgotten today, in which Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas—he of scholarship fame—suggested that Truman appoint a Republican secretary of state and then resign. Since Truman had succeeded to the presidency upon Roosevelt’s death, the vice presidency was vacant; the unelected Republican secretary of state would then become president. Otherwise, Coffin quoted Fulbright explaining, “each party will try to blacken the other…. The long-term effect will be to create the impression that democratic processes are bad and all its officials are blackguards. This will not do the Democratic system any good.”
Both the White House and Republicans, Coffin noted, were “wildly unenthusiastic” about the proposal.
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Another similarity between 2014 and 1946 is in the prevalence of small parties in New York state, where, a Nation editorial noted, “the minority parties of the left ran up impressive totals.” Today, we have the Working Families Party and the Greens battling it out for the third slot on the ballot; in 1946, it was the American Labor Party, the Communists and the Liberal Party. The Communists then, as the Greens today, “enjoyed a boost to almost twice their usual modest return,” The Nation reported.
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In an editorial titled “Picking Up the Pieces,” The Nation wondered just how much could be read into the results of the midterm elections, devastating though they were for the Democratic Party:
It was exceedingly shrewd of the Republicans to focus last week’s election on the question “Had Enough?” The returns indicate beyond doubt that the voters have had enough—but because of the magnificently calculated vagueness of the question nobody can say just what it is that has sated them. Have they had enough jobs, enough protection against the ups and downs of the business cycle, enough security for their bank savings, enough cheap electric power and land reclamation, enough freedom to organize in labor unions, enough cooperation with other nations in the promotion of world peace? Or have they only had enough of weariness after a long and bitter war, of vexations that are an inevitable part of the transition to peace, of that sagging of the spirit in high places and in low that marks the end of a monumental national effort?
The Republicans are in power now and free to interpret the results as they choose. But in spite of the magnitude of their victory, they will be taking a long chance if they ignore the emotional reaction of a tired people in favor of a strictly political interpretation; if, in short, they flatly assume that they have a mandate to destroy the achievements of the Roosevelt era. They won control of Congress not because the country longed for Republicanism—whatever that might be—but because in almost every state in the country a vote for the G.O.P. was the only way in which a hazy discontent could be expressed.
As for the president, the editorial concluded, Truman faced a choice:
If he uses the veto, and the threat of the veto, with shrewdness and courage, he may get better results from an opposition Congress than from an undisciplined mob of legislators only theoretically controlled by his own party. He has the choice of taking a strong lead, with the hope of preserving the prestige of his office and his party, or of allowing the government to wallow for two years in uncertainty—with sure defeat at the end of the road and something like national paralysis en route.
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Any given back issue of The Nation is full of interesting little tidbits: editorials that could have been written yesterday; book reviews of classics and forgotten tomes; news items that alter what we think we know about an event in history; essays that only need to be dusted off to shimmer again and shine. Reading old clippings from the magazine both provides surprising context for the news today—the first thing one learns is that the world has always been falling apart—and helps us realize the continuities of what The Nation, in its first issue, called “the conflict of ages, the great strife between the few and the many, between privilege and equality, between law and power, between opinion and the sword.” Today we look at the issue of October, 29, 1938.
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A brief entertaining blurb in the first section of the magazine, “The Shape of Things,” went as follows:
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On the next page, an editorial, “Taking Stock” tries to plot “a consistent, democratic foreign policy” in the wake of Munich, which The Nation described as a disastrous betrayal. Even the relatively well-intentioned stances of the Roosevelt administration were not sufficient to the needs of the moment, the editors warned: “That strange mixture of democratic good-will, moral indignation, irresponsible detachment, and a sharp nose for profits that characterizes our foreign policy has, we fear, all the earmarks of the current American mood. Liberal opinion must agree on the elements of a program and then press them upon the people and the government.”
Moreover, the editorial continued, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, the future president’s father, should be recalled from London: “His boyish enthusiasm for collaboration with dictators is as shocking today as it may prove troublesome tomorrow, and it affords a striking symbol of all that we must oppose.”
Fourth on a list of “points of immediate policy on which liberals can agree” was this foreboding item: “We must be bold and humane in our treatment of the refugee problem. A willingness to take in a fair share of the homeless victims of Hitler would do more than diplomacy or financial backing to induce other countries to open their doors.” During the war, The Nation regularly, passionately and, in the end, unsuccessfully called for the admission of refugees, especially cast-off European Jews, to the United States, but I had not realized it sounded the call so early.
“As a nation we are heading into responsibilities and dangers new in our experience,” the editorial concluded. “Let us be certain at least that our government approaches them along a road that avoids the ambuscades of Chamberlain diplomacy.”
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At the end of the issue, where the Letters to the Editors section then ran, there appears a letter written by Raif N. Khuri, “Palestine Arab Delegate to the Second World Youth Congress,” a gathering the previous summer held at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Khuri was responding to a report from October 4 by the Nation correspondent Albert Viton, describing the ongoing Arab uprising against British rule in Palestine. The Nation largely supposed Zionism at the time, but not quite as vigorously or unambiguously as it did in the late 1940s, when editor and publisher Freda Kirchwey was probably the most influential and visibile liberal Zionist in the United States. In a news blurb at the beginning of the issue we are currently examining, The Nation argued that looming British suppression of the Arab revolt meant Jews
would have to recognize that, however much their numbers increased, they would always be surrounding by a ring of hostile Arab countries, waiting for revenge whenever the attention of the British policeman was diverted. Realistic appraisal of the situation emphasizes the need for maintaining strong pressure on the British government both to protect the Jews already in Palestine and to take active steps to provide other havens for Jewish refugees.
By the middle of the next decade, The Nation was no longer entertaining the notion that “other havens” would do.
In this context Khuri’s note is especially interesting, in that he offers the view of a progressive (actually, a Communist) Arab on how, as he puts it in the close of his letter, “peace” could “reign once more in the troubled Holy Land.”
“The struggle of the Arabs in Palestine,” Khuri wrote, “is a wide movement with definite points which the vast majority of the people supports.”
While acknowledging the suffering of Jews in fascist countries, Khuri wrote that “Palestine alone cannot solve this problem. It simply does not have the capacity.”
The struggle of the Arab people…is neither a racial, nor a fanatically religious, nor a fascist anti-Semitic struggle. Unfortunately, events in Palestine are discrediting this struggle. The Arab masses denounce the killing of innocent children, women, and men. The Arab people refuse to be consdiered as represented by the elements which commit such crimes. But let it not be forgotten that there is a strong revisionist (fascist) party among the Zionists that has for years carried on a campaign of terror against the Arabs. Let it not be forgotten that imperialism in Palestine harbors its ghastly terror. “Reprisals” it is called in polite British circles. I do not say this to justify terror. Terror from any side is altogether detestable….
The Jews who are subject to inhuman oppression by the dictatorships, will surely not allow themselves to be used as the tools of some Zionist leaders and of the imperialists to oppress the aspirations of the Arabs to federation and independence….
I should like to say in conclusion that I still have a strong hope for a satisfactory settlement—a hope arising from the fact that many of the Zionist leaders are beginning to reconcile themselves to the facts and are losing their sole fixation of a Jewish state in Palestine. They are beginning to understand the aims of the Arabs and the possibility, the necessity, for the Jewish people to join hands with the Arab people to build a free, united, democratic Palestine. They are opposing those Zionist leaders who would accept the partition of the tiny country because they want a “state” even if it is a lamentable, doomed, unviable thing resembling an infant born with a head but no body. They know that such a “state” would benefit only British imperialism. And they are realizing more than ever the madness of those Zionists who would take Palestine by force.
Khuri died in 1967. Very little seems to have been written about him in English online, though one website I came across, for whose veracity I cannot vouch, claims he “published the first book about human rights on Arab soil.”
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This week marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Andrew Kopkind, beloved friend of and contributor to The Nation and one of the gutsiest, most talented, most radical journalists the United States has ever seen. Kopkind started at Time, The New Republic and The New Statesman in the 1960s, wrote for Ramparts, the Village Voice and The New York Review of Books in the 1970s—though, rather outrageously, he is not mentioned (to my recollection) in the recent documentary about the Review, The 50-Year Argument—and began writing for The Nation in 1980. Mostly as associate editor and briefly as film critic—but, most importantly, as a roving correspondent and commentator—Kopkind wrote well over 100 articles for The Nation until his death in 1994.
If you don’t already have a copy of Kopkind’s collected writings, The Thirty Years’ Wars, well, I don’t know what you’re doing. Perhaps it suffices to say that when it comes to recent American history and the possibilities of leftist journalism, all your fallacies are wrong (to paraphrase the philosopher). For old Kopkind fans and younger Nation readers who (like myself) never had the chance to read him week to week, here is a selection of his ten best—or at least most lasting—pieces published in our pages.—Richard Kreitner
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“The Return of Cold War Liberalism,” April 3, 1983
A new chill is in the air. The powerful producers of the plays of history have opened a sequel to their old cold war hit, and many of the cultural props that supported the first run are coming back into style. There’s a retro look to the political landscape, the feel of the Dulles days. Rebellion, utopias and tender-mindedness are out; conformity, realism and hard-heartedness are in. Liberals—who always manage to mediate the terms of discourse—are out of high office and high fashion; and once more many of them have enlisted in a cold war, with their familiar postures and attacks….
At the core of the process is war—the militarization of American society, the obsession with national security, the preoccupation with loyalty, patriotism and power. War, Orwell said, is the engine that drives society. It is certainly the motivation for neoconservatism, the New Right and, now, cold war liberalism. The issue of war and peace has shaped every aspect of American policy in this century, from highway construction to education to economic strategies to the preservation of civil liberties. If the country moves toward war, the pressure will increase on all the forces in the land that seek to open institutions to popular participation, change and equality. If we move toward peace, the space for freedom will begin to expand again.
What is the Reaganist project? It begins with the idea of rollback: not only in international affairs, where it is directed against revolution in the Third World and, finally, against Communist Eastern Europe, but also in domestic matters, where it aims to repeal the progressive developments of a century of liberal action. If that seems farfetched, conjure a more radical fantasy: Turn-of-the-century America has a politically active military establishment directing a militarized economy in a Christian nation. Civil rights and civil liberties are subject to circumscription by a Supreme Court whose members are vetted by religious leaders and ideological overseers. Foreign adventures arouse little opposition because the pool of potential protesters has shrunk with the degradation of democratic education and the repression of radical and liberal institutions. All but the most pliant labor unions are decertified. The old middle class has vanished and a Reaganist class of service managers, franchise owners and venture capitalists sits on a huge underclass of burger wrappers and security guards. The press is assiduously neutral, the airwaves are full of hymns and sermons, and libraries are divided into a section of dog stories and Gothic romances for the public and locked stacks of books with more controversial subjects for expert eyes only.
If that seems unlikely, as it certainly is, the reason is contained in the contradictions within Reaganism as well as in the opposition. The divisions between the fundamentalists and the corporatists; the ethnics and the yuppies; the blue-collar workers and the technocrats; the Northeasterners and the Southwesterners, could be glossed over this year, while electoral triumph was in sight, but those conflicts of interest must sooner or later erode the strength of the movement. Although Reaganism is wider and deeper than Reagan himself, his presence and performance hold the abrasive elements together.
It is the dual nature of Reaganism’s strength—its personal and ideological character—that offers the best opportunity for opposition from the outside. The political fight against the Reagan Administration, primarily but not exclusively in the electoral arena, can be transformed into the fight against the ideology. Just as the liberal and left attack on McCarthyism was waged largely against Joe McCarthy, so this battle must take advantage of the organizational symbol. Beyond that, Reaganism’s social and political system is bound to produce specific counterattacks. The conditions that produced revolution in the Third World, the black struggle at home, the women’s movement and the demands for economic and social equity only a few years ago have not essentially changed. Reaganism cannot work quickly or efficiently enough to alter the consciousness that developed then, nor can it effectively remove the conditions or erase the demands. It will have to rely on repression and neglect to maintain its forward motion and, finally, its stability. And we all know what happens then. It’s not too soon to start thinking about the heady days to come as the age of Reaganism begins to darken.
“Facing South Africa,” November 22, 1986
The epic drama of South African liberation promises scenes of sweeping emotion, heavy with historic meaning: throngs filling the streets, tanks converging on the capital, colonialism shrinking from the continent and the empire of the West in retreat. One day that play may run, but now the drama is only conceptual and the stirring scenes only fleetingly foreshadowed in raw moments of insurgency, displays of uncommon unity, and fantasies of power and justice long denied: miners marching from the pit, fists raised at too-frequent funerals, shots in the dark of the township night. Between those flares of feeling, daily life in South Africa seems strangely flat. In the white cities usual business and social relations are conducted with a deliberate aplomb that implicitly denies the looming upheaval. In the black townships the collapse of civic structures and the interruption of ordinary activities have produced a numbing normality, while the nightly fire fights and a permanent military occupation define a new repressive routine that is still short of unbearable. Survival and rebellion contend for the loyalty of the land.
“Jackson in Iowa: A Populist Message Hits Home,” July 18/25, 1987
What Jackson calls a “new feudalism” is settling over the rural heartland. Farmers default on their loans; banks and insurance companies (and sometimes government agencies) foreclose; sometimes they burn and bulldoze the lovely old white farmhouses, the barns, the silos and the stands of trees that protected the homeland from the prairie wins. Scorching the earth saves money by lowering property taxes. Families who simply cannot tear themselves from their birthplaces are sometimes allowed to stay on the land by the new management companies or megafarmers, in return for work done. Those new tenants represent the saddest sector of a shift in productive relations that will amount to billions or perhaps trillions of dollars by the end of the century….
It’s not hard to see how Jesse Jackson can make populist politics in a place like this, and the strategy seems to be working, at least in this early stage of the campaign. Farmers who have never seen a black person in their town, let alone in their kitchen, told me they’d vote for Jackson because, as one of them put it, “He’s meeting the issues.” Dick Butler, a farmer who moonlights as a coach at the school in Churdan, said he wouldn’t vote for a Catholic [a reference to Joe Biden]—“the Vatican’s got too much power as it is”—and he wouldn’t vote for Pat Robertson “if my life depended on it,” but he thinks that Jackson “understands the farmer, the blue-collar man, the working man.”
“I don’t think that the fact that he’s black will hurt him here,” Butler’s wife, Rona, added. “The presidency is so far away. Now, if he was going to marry my daughter, that might be a different story.”
“The Wider War,” February 4, 1991”:
If Bush does get his quick victory, the wider war will still be far from finished. The costs of victory are staggering, not only economically but in domestic and international political and moral costs. The restoration of a despised and degenerate emirate in Kuwait will not produce the stability the generals predict. The further militarization of America will not construct a stable society. Standards of living have been declining for twenty years; the structural flaws in the system have nothing to do with Saddam Hussein.
Part of the purpose of Bush’s action was to destroy the “post-Vietnam syndrome,” to show Americans that war need not be costly, either in lives or treasure. The job of the peace movement now is to expose all the expenses of the military/imperial project: not only for ourselves but for billions of people struggling and suffering, in confused and imperfect ways, to get some control over their lives and destiny. What we can call for now is talking, not bombing, disengagement, not confrontation, peacemaking rather than warmaking, and above all, respect for those who would be truly independent of the great power with the most hardware.
War creates consent. The best wars—those that are fought decisively, are won quickly and cost little—deliver so much approval to those who wage them it’s a wonder strong leaders allow so much time to pass between campaigns. And in the case of the United States, they don’t. America has been in a state of war—cold, hot and luke-warm—for as long as most citizens now living can remember. The epic struggles against fascism, communism, nationalism and tin-pot tyranny have been used effectively to manufacture support for the nation’s rulers and to eliminate or contain dissent among the ruled. Now, after a half-century of construction, the warrior state is so ingrained in American institutions, has so saturated everyday ideology, is so essential to prosperity—in short, is so totalitarian—that government is practically unthinkable without it. And from the look of things, that past may be merely prologue to a future dressed in khaki and marching in lockstep.
“Bernie Sanders Does D.C.,” June 3, 1991:
Bernie Sanders is way out in left field. In Congress, where it’s wrong to be independent, bad form to struggle over issues and worse than gauche to perform ahead of the curve, Vermont’s lone Representative is almost out of his league. That should be reason for pride rather than regret, for his league is, in large measure, composed of a lazy, self-serving, retrograde and even corrupt bunch of team players. Still, Sanders who was elected only six months ago after a tumultuous campaign, in an extraordinary victory for progressive, grass-roots political organizing, is committed to the game. Whether it’s worth the effort will take a lot more time to decide.
Bill Clinton offers no evidence that he can reverse the decline of politics in America that seems to have accompanied the decline of economics. Like Dukakis, he has embarked on a campaign that will contract the electorate rather than expand it. Reports from his pollsters and focus group leaders recommend that he never speak of the poor, of blacks or Latinos, of women or gays, of labor unions, of cities, of the working class, of power. He is permitted to mention the unemployed only if it is clear that he is speaking of the temporarily unfortunate. Welfare is considered a problem, like AIDS for Bush, to be solved by changing the behavior of the afflicted. Clinton projects a spurious idea of “unity,” “personal responsibility” and “citizenship” that codifies middle-class manners and interests….
It is virtually impossible for the remaining progressives within the Democratic Party to have much influence on Clinton’s political direction. They will console themselves along the way with arguments that he is “better than Bush,” which is certainly true when it comes to certain social and economic issues, although not necessarily the case in some foreign policy spheres, particularly the Middle East. But in terms of making any meaningful change in the way America works—from the delivery of health care to the redistribution of power—Clinton offers nothing of interest. The transformative moment that seemed at hand four years ago has passed. This is a status quo election. America is still a one-party state.
“The Gay Moment,” May 3, 1993:
What has changed the climate in America is the long experience of gay struggle, the necessary means having been, first, coming out, and second, making a scene. Sometimes it is personal witness, other times political action, and overall it is the creation of a cultural community based on sexual identity….
The gay nineties is not only about civil rights, tolerance and legitimacy. What started tumbling out of the closets at the time of Stonewall is profoundly altering the way we all live, form families, think about and act toward one another, manage our health and well-being and understand the very meaning of identity. All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
“After Stonewall,” July 4, 1994:
Although Stonewall came at the very end of a decade of convulsive change, and was profoundly informed by the struggles of black Americans, women, radical students and insurgent movements throughout the Third World, it was in many ways the purest cultural revolution of them all, and the precursor of the postmodern politics of identity that proliferated in the decades to follow. Lesbians and gays are surely today’s children of Stonewall, but many more are stepchildren or close cousins. That June night a quarter of a century ago now belongs to everyone….
Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the antiwar marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts. Not only that, but the years of gay men and lesbians locking themselves inside windowless, unnamed bars; writing dangerous, anonymous novels and articles’ lying about their identity to their families, their bosses, the military; suffering silently when they were found out; hiding and seeking and winking at each other, or drinking and dying by themselves. And sometimes, not often, braving it out and surviving. It’s absolutely astonishing to think that on one early summer’s night in New York that world ended, and a new one began.
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For a month and more, The Guardian has been running an amusing series, “King or Queen for a Day,” in which famous British writers and broadcasters lay out what they would do with absolute power. Terry Eagleton said he would pay especial attention to abuses of language: “People who tell you that they literally exploded with laughter will be literally exploded. Those who talk about their life as a journey will have their travels rapidly terminated.”
A scientific commission will inquire why no café in the world is able to put salt and pepper on every table and also look into whether there is a clause in the contract of Hollywood screenwriters requiring them to insert the words “try to get some sleep” into every script they write. Citizens will be legally obliged to beat up anyone who blunders into them in the street while texting. Capital punishment will be reintroduced for people who listen in on your conversation in public places without even making a feeble pretence of not doing so… All sport will be suspended indefinitely, to be reinstated only when everyone agrees to pull out of Nato and replace capitalism with self-governing cooperatives.
In late 1931, The Nation launched a similar series, “If I Were Dictator,” with contributions from some of the leading lights of the day. (All of them, it should be noted, white men.) They took the assignment somewhat more seriously than The Guardian’s do, but those were heady times. Still, the issues that contributors to The Nation’s early-1930s series sought to amend are markedly similar to those very much still with us today. Here is a sampling of three of those essays, by the great critic Lewis Mumford, the English political theorist Harold Laski and Oswald Garrison Villard, owner and editor of The Nation:
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Lewis Mumford (December 9, 1932):
Harold Laski (January 6, 1932):
If I were dictator I should server notice upon Japan that if she did not withdraw within her former lines in Manchuria I should invoke an international boycott to compel her to do so, and, to demonstrate that I meant what I said in all sincerity, I should withdraw every last American soldier from Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, Samoa, and the Philippines. I should free the latter before their inhabitants had time to petition me for this action and so live up to our plighted national word…I should immediately recognize the Russia of the Soviets with every gesture of friendship and good-will to the Russian people. I should not be afraid of communism because I should set out really to constitute an honest and efficient government for the United States, one responding to the will of the American people as expressed through the initiative and referendum, and I am bold enough to believe that if I could have my way, our own system of government as reconstituted would not only challenge comparison with the Soviet program, but would seem infinitely more desirable so long as the Soviet Government is a blood-handed class dictatorship.
To accomplish this I should do everything in my power to bring about economic equality, and equality before the law. As I do not believe in prisons as they are now constituted, I should relegate to prison farms every single American official—and their number runs into thousands upon thousands—who violates the law, believes himself superior to it, and connives at the abuse of personal liberties by men in the garb of police officers or in that of civil authority. For I believe that the chief explanation of our being the most lawless civilized nation is to be found in the fact that we have more lawless officials sworn to uphold the law than any other nation on earth.
I should remove from the statute books by one stroke of the pen every law regulating the private morals of individual citizens. I should declare that, however men and women behaved in their relations with one another, it was their own affair, save where the public peace was disturbed….
I should frankly and boldly imitate the Russian government in that I should stress above all else the welfare, the prosperity, and the happiness of the plain people of Abraham Lincoln. Instead of making this a government by and for the well-to-do and the rich, I should make it a government primarily concerned with the welfare of the toiling masses, and I should let the rich go hang.
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A new film, Kill the Messenger, tells the story of Gary Webb, who as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News in the mid-1990s wrote a widely read series on the CIA’s relationships with Los Angeles crack dealers and the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s investigation earned him the wrath of the US government and its mainstream media abetters, who sicced vengeful journalists on Webb’s trail—devoting far greater resources to poking holes in Webb’s story than they ever had or have since to investigating the actual thrust of his claims. As The Nation’s Greg Grandin writes, “Webb was open to attack because the Los Angeles Times alone assigned seventeen reporters to leverage the inherent mysteries of the national security state to cast doubt on Webb.” Hounded out of journalism and into a deep depression, Webb committed suicide in December 2004. The following month, Alexander Cockburn—co-author, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (1999), partially about Webb—published this column:
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Few spectacles in journalism in the mid-1990s were more disgusting than the slagging of Gary Webb in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Squadrons of hacks, some of them with careerlong ties to the CIA, sprayed thousands of words of vitriol over Webb and his paper, the San Jose Mercury News, for besmirching the agency’s fine name by charging it, in his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series, with complicity in the importing of cocaine into the United States.
There are certain things you aren’t supposed to mention in public in America. The systematic state-sponsorship of torture by the United States used to be a major no-no, but that went by the board this year (even though Seymour Hersh treated the CIA with undue kindness in The Road to Abu Ghraib). A prime no-no is that the US government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy; also that the CIA’s complicity with drug-dealing criminal gangs stretches from the Afghanistan of today back to the year the agency was founded, in 1947. That last one is the line Webb stepped over. He paid for his presumption by undergoing one of the unfairest batterings in the history of the US press. His own paper turned on him.
Friday, December 10, Webb died in his Sacramento apartment from what seems to have been a self-inflicted gunshot blast to the head. The notices of his passing in many newspapers were as nasty as ever. The Los Angeles Times took care to note that even after the “Dark Alliance” uproar Webb’s career had been “troubled,” offering as evidence the following: “While working for another legislative committee in Sacramento, Webb wrote a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning and even encouraging racial profiling in its drug interdiction program.” The effrontery of the man! “Legislative officials released the report in 1999,” the story piously continued, “but cautioned that it was based mainly on assumptions and anecdotes,” no doubt meaning that Webb didn’t have dozens of CHP officers stating under oath, on the record, that they were picking on blacks and Hispanics. There were similar fountains of outrage in 1996 that the CIA hadn’t been given enough space in Webb’s series to solemnly swear that never a gram of cocaine had passed under its nose but that it had been seized and turned over to the DEA or US Customs.
In 1998 Jeffrey St. Clair and I published Whiteout, a book about the relationships among the CIA, drugs and the press since the agency’s founding. We also examined the Webb affair in detail. On a lesser scale and at lower volume, Whiteout elicited the same sort of abuse Webb drew. It was a long book stuffed with well-documented facts, over which the critics vaulted to charge us, as they did Webb, with “conspiracy-mongering,” even as they accused us of recycling “old news.” (The oddest was a multipage screed in The Nation flaying us for giving aid and comfort to the war on drugs and not addressing the truly important question, Why do people take drugs? As I said at the time, To get high, stupid!)
One of the CIA’s favored modes of self-protection is the “uncover-up.” The agency first denies with passion, then later concedes, in muffled tones, the charges leveled against it. Such charges have included the agency’s recruitment of Nazi scientists and SS officers; experiments on unwitting American citizens; efforts to assassinate Castro; alliances with opium lords in Burma, Thailand and Laos; an assassination program in Vietnam; complicity in the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile; the arming of opium traffickers and religious fanatics in Afghanistan; the training of murderous police and soldiers in Guatemala and El Salvador; and involvement in drugs-and-arms shuttles between Latin America and the United States.
True to form, after Webb’s series raised a storm, particularly in the black community, the CIA issued categorical denials. Then came the noisy pledges of an intense and far-reaching investigation by the CIA’s Inspector General, Fred Hitz. On December 19, 1997, stories in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and the New York Times by Tim Weiner appeared simultaneously, both saying the same thing: Hitz had finished his investigation. He had found no link, “directly or indirectly,” between the CIA and the cocaine traffickers. As both Pincus and Weiner admitted in their stories, neither of the two journalists had seen the report itself.
The actual report, so loudly heralded, received almost no examination. But those who took the time to examine the 149-page document—the first of two volumes—found Hitz making one damning admission after another, including an account of a meeting between a pilot who was making drug/arms runs between San Francisco and Costa Rica with two contra leaders who were also partners with the San Francisco-based contra/drug smuggler Norwin Meneses. Present at this encounter in Costa Rica was a man who said his name was Ivan Gomez, identified by one of the contras as the CIA’s “man in Costa Rica.” The pilot told Hitz that Gomez said he was there “ensuring that the profits from the cocaine went to the Contras and not into someone’s pocket.” The second volume of Inspector General Hitz’s investigation, released in the fall of 1998, buttressed Webb’s case even more tightly, as James Risen conceded in a story in the New York Times on October 10 of that year.
So why did the top-tier press savage Webb and parrot the CIA’s denials? Another New York Times reporter, Keith Schneider, was asked by In These Times back in 1987 why he had devoted a three-part series in the Times to attacks on the Iran/contra hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry. Schneider said such a story could “shatter the Republic. I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass.” Kerry did uncover mountains of evidence. So did Webb. But neither of them got the only thing that would have satisfied Schneider, Pincus and all the other critics: a signed confession of CIA complicity by the Director of Central Intelligence himself. Short of that, I’m afraid we’re left with “innuendo,” “conspiracy-mongering” and “old news.” We’re also left with the memory of some great work by a very fine journalist who deserved a lot better than he got.
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